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img_3676The only thing not great about O+O Sicilian Kitchen and Bar in Santa Monica was finding the place. Waze announced my dining companion and I had arrived, but we still couldn’t find it after 10 minutes of walking up and down Ocean Blvd.  We started to leave when we ran into a group of people who were also looking for it.  They had friends on the phone who were at the restaurant who swore it really existed and we were just a half black away.  I’m glad we did not give up the hunt.

Even on a dark, cold and rainy night, somehow a restaurant full of people had found O+O.  The place was packed.  After having a needed glass of Tuscany wine to unwind from our trek, we relaxed into the warm and friendly neighborhood atmosphere of the Italian family style eatery, where large groups had pushed together tables, and many families with children were dining together.

The menu featured modern Sicilian cuisine with a California flair, with dishes such as fennel and blood orange salad, fried olives, squid ink linguine and vegetarianna artichoke and eggplant pizza.  As a charcuterie aficionado, I was happy to see a selection of cold cuts, and for my starter I had the persimmon and prosciutto salad. The meat was satisfyingly salty, and the burrata perfectly creamy soft.

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It’s a good thing I didn’t eat lunch that day, because after the generously portioned salad, I was already feeling full, and I was wondering if we should have ordered the second course, the restaurant’s popular classic meatballs, but we were glad we did.

The meatballs lived up to their promise, of being classic. They tasted just like my mom’s meatballs from my childhood, the ones she would make for the progressive dinner parties, that percolated all day in the crockpot in their rich tomato sauce with basil, and pecorino.

For the main course, I ordered the breaded swordfish, which was previously a special, but because but it became so popular they put it on the menu. It was light and tasty, served with romaine, arugula, fennel, and cherry tomatoes.  A delicious and perfectly cooked dish.

To finish off our meal, we enjoyed the trio selection of ricotta, pistachio and chocolate cannoli, which were fresh and just the right size to not be overly filling after a three-course meal.

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The food made this place worth finding, but clearly by the size of the crowd, the restaurant was not as hidden as we thought. In fact, the crowd was a bit much, as the place was rather noisy, probably owing to the acoustics of the mostly glass walls. It seemed like everyone was yelling to be heard, so on one hand there was an enjoyable frenetic New York-y energy, but on the other hand, I would’ve liked a more tranquil environment to savior my food.

While they are not terrific for audibility, those panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows offer an incredible view of the outdoors, which on a sunny day would be the place I would choose to dine. The patio overlooks a lovely courtyard of the Pacific Terrace building complex in which the restaurants resides — and which should be part of the street address instead of Ocean Avenue, if they want to make the place less impossible to find; but maybe its best we keep that a secret.

img_3980A beach, a city, and a harbor for ships and visitors

Living 17 years in LA, I visited Long Beach about half a dozen times. It served as a halfway meeting point for me and friends who lived in Orange County. We had brunch and dinner there on occasion, and I visited the aquarium with my son and went whale watching once, but I never really considered Long Beach a destination. That was before I had the opportunity to spend an entire weekend there, and I truly got to know what this 55-square-mile city offers unique from its neighbors.

Long Beach has 11.5 miles of beach, which is how the city gets its name, but what sets this  Southern California seaside town apart is its urban environment by the waterside. Think Seattle or Miami, but with constant sunshine, and relaxed attitude of Southern California, along with a desirable geographic position 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

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Whereas across the Southern California coast, denizens can brag that they can snow ski in the morning and sunbathe on the beach in the afternoon, Long Beach one-ups that boast with the promise that residents can go sailing or deep sea fishing, or even visit the island of Catalina for lunch, then go skiing, and be back by dinner time to dine at a world-class metropolitan restaurant and hit the nightlife in the city, until the wee morning hours if they wish.

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It is a vast city, with a plethora of diverse offerings in the area of culture, cuisine and arts.  The latter category of arts happens to be one of most thriving for the city in the last decade, in which the city has dedicated 1% of its revenue to developing arts programs. Long Beach is the home of the Museum of Latin American art, along with the long beach museum of art, which combines contemporary collections and classical architecture with an oceanfront view. The city is also known for its street art, including the gigantic outdoor murals of the Pow! Wow! international art collective.

The local art scene inspires much of the culture of the town, from the awesome award-winning architecture of the Long Beach airport, named one of the 10 most architecturally beautiful airports in the world, to Retro Row, a 1950s-inspired walk back in time into a mid-century throwback of restaurants and coffee shops, barbershops, and furniture and decor shops that seem like a scene out of  Mad Men, for which in fact the set designers of said show often visited for props, wardrobe and inspiration.

One cannot talk about Long Beach without mentioning the RMS Queen Mary. The behemoth transatlantic ocean liner, built in 1936, that is three times larger than the Titanic, is permanently docked on the Long Beach shoreline, where at now serves as a tourist attraction and hotel where visitors can stay in one of the refurbished first class state rooms.

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In speaking to locals of Long Beach, it seems everyone has a connection to the Queen Mary. Many have worked there, or their friends or family members have, and many have their own personal stories about the lore of the old ship, purported to be haunted by ghosts.
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The boat has been floating at its current resting place since 1967, and it rises twice a day, up and down with the tide, hosting hundreds and even thousands of tourists daily for tours and special events. Visitors and ghost chasers revel in the stories told by the Captain and Commodore and the many knowledgeable docents who share a passion for the ship as strong as any Brit’s fealty to their royal figurehead.

Aside from the Queen Mary, there is much more to the shoreline and the bounty of the sea that is an essential draw to the city. The Long Beach aquarium is also world renowned, housing more than 11,000 animals and nearly 500 different species and featuring exhibits that allow visitors to get an up-close perspective and even touch the animals displayed there, in addition to sponsoring many learning programs for visitors of all ages.

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In addition to these two major attractions there is also a wharf area with seafood restaurants, like the renowned Parker’s Lighthouse, offering tourists and locals spectacular views along with the region’s best and freshest seafood. The culinary scene, like the city itself, has great variety, such as renowned authentic Mexican food at Lolos Mexican Cuisine; The Attic on Broadway, a southern comfort food eatery; the trendy Sip Bar & Lounge at the Marriott Renaissance Long Beach Hotel, featuring the “ocean to fork” culinary creations of award-winning Top Chef contestant Executive Chef Janine Falvo; and L’Opera, a sophisticated fine dining restaurant featuring Northern Italian fare.

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Lest we forget to mention the shopping, Long Beach is home to one of the area’s newest outlet malls, called the Pike Outlets, which not only has a number of premium discount stores, such as Restoration Hardware and Columbia sportswear, but it also features a Ferris wheel that has become an attraction in itself.

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While a day trip is an easy excursion from Los Angeles, for out-of-towners and those who want to stay overnight, the city offers a growing number of hotels, from the downtown Hyatt Regency, which offers spectacular vistas of the city to the quaint feeling Hotel Maya, a Hilton Doubletree hotel, which though is a sizable property of 200 rooms, has the charm of a boutique hotel, with views overlooking the bay and it’s own marina, which maritime guests can slip into and then stay overnight on their boats or in hotel rooms.

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The hotel also features Fuego restaurant, famous for its handcrafted margaritas made from its expansive selection of premium tequilas. Its best-kept secret its small private beach, Playa Maya, for which the hotel developers brought in thousands of pounds of sand to create an inviting alcove with lounge seating around fire pit which are the scene of s’more making and merry making in the evenings.

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The hotel offers bike rentals which I took advantage to take a quick, three-minute ride to the Queen Mary, then I doubled back and headed into the city, which was easily accessible by bike designated bike paths. I rode to the Pike and took a break by the Rainbow Lagoon Park and a spin by the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, which was dark on the weekend I visited.

On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, the city was quiet, almost deserted, which is part of the diverse character of the city that is a lure to visitors. It is a bustling city during the weekdays, and a laid-back beach city on the weekends – a city that embodies work and play. While tourists may find its appeal as a central outpost for visiting Los Angeles and many of Southern California’s other major attractions, such as Disneyland, California Adventure, and Universal Studios Hollywood Long Beach in itself has the draw of a tourist destination, with its features as a metropolitan city, with the added appeal of a sunny beach comprising its boundaries.

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As a port city, where cargo ships dock from around the world, and to which trucks haul goods back and forth, Long Beach can experience a fair amount of traffic, and the tangled maze of roads to the harbor, with the abundance of signage directing visitors to the various attractions, can make it a navigation feat to find one’s way around at first. Once I got the hang of the roadways, with the help of Waze, I was able to steer myself around like a native, and in fact I found a few short cuts. While I got a good sense of Long Beach by staying there for a weekend, I learned there was a great deal I have yet to explore in this sprawling beach, I mean, city.

 

flemings-filet-and-ribeye-group-shot_largeFleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar in Beverly Hills has a hipper swagger than your traditional steakhouse. It has the dim lighting, crisp white table cloths and large booth seating that you expect from a fine dining establishment, but unlike the staid and almost library-like atmosphere of many steakhouses, Fleming’s feels like a party.

This energy could be partially owing to the vivaciousness of the servers, like Tyler, who we figured must be an actor, because his flashy smile was at any moment headshot ready, who took care of me and my dining companion on our last visit, but it is also the general vibe of the place, from the laughter of the well-heeled patrons mingling at the bar to the steady flow of patrons in and out of the restaurant, milling about in the entry, greeting the host and hostess as if they were old friends, maybe they were.

But of course, the ambience and atmosphere are important, but the food is essential, and here is where Fleming’s truly excels. Being a steakhouse, of course I ordered a steak. As a huge fan of the bone-in T-bone, I ordered the one and only size of its variety, the 20-ounce steak, which was a meal fit for a king, or two. Of course, with an Uncle Buck sized steak like this, I figured I would end up boxing up a good portion of it to take home, but it was so juicy and flavorful that I did not leave as much on my plate as I had expected, but still enough for a second excellent meal the next day.

As we had started our meal with the outstanding crabcakes, wading in a puddle of roasted red pepper and lime butter sauce, followed by the Flemings salad of candied walnuts, dried cranberries, tomatoes, onions, herbed crostini, lemon vinaigrette, we did not want to overdo it, and so we only ordered the shoestring potatoes as a side, though we had heard good things about the crispy fried brussels sprouts and the monstrous onion rings, but we will have to wait until next time to order those.

Tyler kept us happy, making sure all our dishes arrived as ordered, hot and fresh. He was not afraid to give his opinion on the best way to have our food prepared, such as recommending having my steak seared on both sides before cooking it to a perfect medium rare, versus broiling it. He also had excellent suggestions regarding wines, and he didn’t judge when I asked for white wine with my steak, and he selected for me a rich and buttery Chardonnay that paired perfectly with the juicy flavor of my steak.

To finish off our most excellent dining adventure, Tyler recommended Fleming’s extraordinary carrot cake. A tall layered slice of this goodness was delivered with a bowl of fresh whipped cream, which we sampled liberally with each bite of this decadently delicious dessert.

Our dinner experience was leisurely, with Tyler pacing the delivery of each course to give us time for conversation and to whet our appetites for the next course. Noticeably, many of the same folks at the bar who were there when we arrived we’re still there when we left.

Despite the festive, jovial atmosphere, full of lively conversation and activity, it did not feel hectic, nor did we feel rushed, even though it was a busy night. Our experience felt more like we were among a gathering of family and old friends.

In Beverly Hills, where the scene can sometimes be, well, scene-y, Fleming’s was a nice respite, where one could be dressed up and enjoy an upscale evening out without the uppity stiffness of some restaurants in town where in the end you are just glad it’s over. Fleming’s is a place where guests want to linger, for the food and drinks, and just because it feels comfortable to be there.

Flemings has 13 locations in California, including a newly opened restaurant in Pasadena.

lb-gallery-brunchWhen choosing a restaurant for a special occasion, such as an anniversary, birthday, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, holiday dinner or a family celebration, the ideal venue should be as memorable as the event, a tall order which Las Brisas in Laguna always aims to fulfill for its guests.  My second to last visit there was about 10 years ago, and after enjoying a Christmas day family dinner there recently, I wondered why it has been so long.

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The drive from Los Angeles to Laguna is about an hour, and like many Angelenos I tend to dine within a 20-minute drive radius, but every so often I will venture further outside my culinary comfort zone, such as to Malibu or Laguna, and that is when I realize why the drive is worth it.  As a dining destination, Las Brisas has it all.  A spectacular vista of the Pacific coastline, excellent food, superb service, an elegant yet laid-back atmosphere, and a few bonuses, such as a bird’s eye view of surfers and divers who are drawn to the famous seascape, and a warm, friendly atmosphere that can only be cultivated by decades of being a local establishment beloved by its neighbors.

The legendary restaurant was built in 1938 as the Victor Hugo Inn, a world-class restaurant and celebrity getaway, and it became Las Brisas in 1979, a first-class sea-to-table culinary destination attracting both locals and visitors of discriminating tastes.

The menu features an infusion of the best of Californian cuisine with authentic Mexican recipes of rich, sweet, sour and spicy flavors, such as the Shrimp, Tampiqueños an entree of Spicy wild Mexican prawns sautéed with shiitake mushrooms, Chardonnay and garlic. Traditional Mexican dishes are given a modern twist, such as Caleta, a savory seafood enchilada with skirt steak or the choice of free-range chicken or grilled fish soft taco; or La Asada, a Chipotle-citrus marinated natural skirt steak with a chicken enchilada.

For our holiday dinner, the fare was more continental and limited, with a fixed menu offering including beet salad, butternut squash soup, chops, steaks, scallops, seabass and of course, surf and turf; and for desert a seasonal eggnog crème brulee or apple cinnamon tart.  Despite the fact the restaurant was packed on Christmas night, with diners overflowing onto the patio, where they were warmed comfortably by the glowing flames from glass tower heaters, and guests were brimming out front door on one of winter’s chilliest nights, the maître d seated the waiting guests swiftly and efficiently.

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Likewise, the service was meticulously organized, with hot plates being delivered within a few minutes of ordering, and my medium rare filet was cooked exactly right and the perfect temperature.  We were amazed at how our uber-efficient server juggled the at-capacity crowd with aplomb, answering our questions about the menu, chatting with guests about the holidays, and taking the time to help us select a wine to pair with our entrees.  I half expected him to start spinning plates on a pole.

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One large group that was being seated next to us began to grumble about having a chair placed on the end of the table for an extra guest, so without any discussion the server quickly conferred with the host who obliged the group with a larger table by a window, very much met to their liking.

This is the attitude of “aiming to please” which has made the restaurant a favorite for those occasions when patrons desire impeccable service that makes them feel special.  For the holidays, the restaurant decorated its dining rooms with festive lights, Christmas trees, candles and orchids adorned with holly berries for the season, but the centerpiece for guests of all ages was a giant aquarium that resides in the foyer, which perpetually has small children gathered around, gazing at the brilliant coral and sea life.

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The aquarium is a dependable mainstay, like the restaurant, and no matter the fact it has stood for 38 years in the same place, it is always dynamic and exciting, well worth the trek out of LA to find an experience you can’t have sitting on a city sidewalk.

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The Off the Hook Santa Monica Seafood Festival attracted hundreds of visitors to sample tastes from local eateries.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., every visitor from out of town wanted to site see downtown — the White House, Washington Monument, the museums and the other landmarks and attractions. As a resident of LA, visitors asked me to show them the Hollywood sign, Sunset Boulevard, and always, my favorite tourist spot, the Santa Monica Pier.

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The Pier is a great place to people watch, shop for trinkets, play arcade games or ride thrill rides, or spend a casual day by the beach and even go fishing. In the evening there are plenty of great restaurants for every taste, and for those staying overnight, there are many wonderful luxury and boutique hotels. If visiting just for the day or weekend, here are our picks for places to go, see, dine and stay.

Sea and be seen, and eat

A great place for lunch or dinner is Del Frisco’s Grille, directly across from the Pier entrance at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. While this happening eatery is right on the beaten path, it’s glass-walled patio is a shelter from the crowd, while diners can still note the qualities of the people going by; or those at the buzzy bar or seated inside in the upscale dining room can take respite from the throngs of tourists outside. The menu includes signature entrees including a generously portioned non-fried lump crab cake and adorable aha mini tacos in a with avocado, spicy citrus mayo and fresh tuna tartar spilling out of them. Then menu describes their offerings aptly, such as large salads (Big Greens) ample burgers (Two-Fisted Sandwiches), and chef specialties (Knife & Fork) along with an array of signature steaks and fish, like the delicate parmesan lemon sole with arugula-crab salad, roasted tomato and chive-lemon butter. Save room for the incredible heap of Nutella bread pudding with coffee ice cream.

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Stay a while, leave no footprint

The Shore Hotel boasts ocean views, on Ocean Avenue, and it’s easy walking distance to the pier and many other Santa Monica attractions, including the bike path along the ocean and shopping, cinemas, and many restaurants. It’s a cleanly designed and chic hotel, with lots of glass and chrome, but despite its modernism, the hotel is known for being down to earth. It is a LEED-certified building, with building materials, paints, carpeting, bedding and other textiles within the hotel all conforming to the hotel’s eco-friendly policy. Sure hotels goes beyond simply asking people to reuse their bath towels, they provide a recycling trashcan in each room, and there are reminder signs throughout the hotel to encourage visitors to reuse and recycle.

Even the landscaping around the hotel uses recycled water and features region appropriate succulents. The pool is also solar heated, and conditioning in each room automatically goes off when the balcony door is opened to save energy. The rooms themselves are designed to let in lots of natural light, and since 90% of the rooms have an ocean view with plenty of daylight, there’s no need for artificial lights in the room during the daytime, and the lobby is equally light and airy with floor-to-ceiling glass windows to let in the light and show off the hotels spectacular setting across from the beach.

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Take a long walk on a historic pier

The Santa Monica Pier itself is a main attraction of the city. Like most boardwalks, it is a mix of souvenir shops and walk-up and casual restaurants offering custard ice cream, pizza, French fries, hot dogs on a stick and other typical fast food fare, along with a few sit-down restaurants, like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and an upscale option of The Lobster for fine dining. At the entrance of the pier, the beautiful historic carousel is only one dollar for rides and a must experience for children. There’s also an aquarium that while small in size has many exotic fish and is a great educational sidetrip for kids. For those who prefer their fish on the end of a hook, the Pier has license-free fishing, where my son snagged a spiny backed stingray — which we threw back, due to the the fellow fisherman warning us that fish caught there were contaminated because of pollution.

There is, of course, a noisy arcade with cranes and video games where you can spend $50 to win prizes worth about $2. The Pacific Park, located on the pier, offers midway games, like skee ball and the water balloon filling game, and an assortment of rides for all ages, including the West Coaster, a small roller coaster. The rides can be expensive, up to $8 each for the premium rides, but you can purchase an all-day wristband for $29.95 for adults and $17.95 for kids under 7.

What is considered the boardwalk, a walkway along a strip of shops and restaurants adjacent to the pier, is known as a great place for people watching, where tourists can see street performers jump into piles of glass and the famed Jimi Hendrix on rollerblades often cuts through the crowds jamming on his electric guitar. The scene can get rather seedy at night, so usually families and kids start to disappear around nightfall, when the hippies burning sage and drum circles make their appearance.

Lounge around

If you enjoy a see-and-be-seen lounge atmosphere, head over to the Viceroy Hotel, an ocean front stylish boutique hotel known for its fashionable crowd and hipster happy hours. The hotel’s restaurant, CAST, features an eclectic menu of California cuisine with unexpectedly delicious food and flavor combinations artistically presented in a swanky atmosphere, at the poolside patio restaurant, with its Alice in Wonderland high-back chairs and black and white checkered tables. The restaurant has an award-winning weekend brunch, but get reservations early, or you will get left out of the in crowd.

Shop a while

Shopping in Santa Monica includes indoor and outdoor retail destinations. Besides the random boutiques, there is Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade plaza, which is basically a three-block-long outdoor mall of stores and restaurants, with a variety of food and drink offerings, from juice and smoothie bars to fine Italian dining at Locando del Lago. 3rd Street Promenade also features movie theaters and street performers, including one dead ringer for James Taylor who usually draws a huge crowd. The shops themselves are mostly retail chains, such as Banana Republic, GAP, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Pottery Barn but there are also a slew of independent stores worth checking out.

A short walk away is Santa Monica Place, a galleria of upscale shops, such as Kate Spade A, Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton, and Coach and healthy food offerings like True Food Kitchen, Fresh Healthy Café, and 40 Carots (inside Bloomingdale’s). The mall features concierge services and parking valet and other high-end services for the discerning shopper. The good and bad thing about Santa Monica Place is that it almost always seems deserted, so you can have the place to yourself, but you can also feel like you’re walking in a ghost town. 1280px-santa_monica_place_macerich

Founder Ali Kobeissi Offers Inspired Authentic Mediterranean Cuisine

Open Sesame is a great name for Ali Kobeissi’s restaurant not just because sesame is an essential ingredient in the Mediterranean food he serves, but because dining there is akin to a magical experience like the Ali Baba tale full of adventure and hidden treasures.

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The Los Angeles location of Open Sesame, sister to its location in Long Beach, offers guests an experience that combines the best of meticulous big city service with the familiarity and coziness of a small independent restaurant, coupled with outstanding Middle Eastern fare.

Kobeissi has created an intimate eatery for those who crave authentic Lebanese cuisine, with flavors not just of exotic spices, but also an ambience of romance and the warmth of a family kitchen.  As with his first location in Long Beach, opened in 1999, the Los Angeles restaurant became popular quickly.

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As a youth in Beirut, Kobeissi worked in a spice factory, and he developed a love for healthy, flavorful made without animal fats or additives.   His menu is a delicious testament to his dedication to this wholesomeness.

I was lucky to get a table on a Saturday night with a friend for a feast of Kobeissi’s authentic dishes.  We started with the Kibbi, a shell of ground beef filled with roasted pine nuts, caramelized onions and herbs, with a side of yogurt dip.

 

For entrees we had the Sultan, a combination plate of marinated lamb chops, grilled tiger shrimp, and filet mignon served over basmati rice and Kafta skewers of beef and lamb with parsley, onion and Lebanese spices and hummus.  Of course we couldn’t go Mediterranean without falafel, so we ordered a couple patties a la carte.

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The food was plentiful though light enough that we did not feel overfull.  To finish off our very satisfying meal, we ordered two desserts:  Baklawa a la mode, which was the freshest we had ever tasted, and the Ashta ice cream made a perfect complement; and the Chocolate Molten Lava Cake, which was just the right amount of rich, topped with Lebanese almond ice cream.

While we did not order any of the salud juices, the Spicy Ginger Shot of ginger and cayenne sounded like a blast; or other exotic beverages to choose from included Turkish coffee infused with cardamom, or Laban, a chilled yogurt drink with dry mint.

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As we looked around the room, many patrons had finished their meals but lingered for the enjoyable ambience.  Kobeissi roamed the room, graciously greeting and chatting with his customers as if they were long-time friends, welcome to stay the entire evening.  But with food this good, the crowd of guests arriving for their reservations would be glad to have their tables soon.

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Open Sesame is located at 7458 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles.  For menus and more, go to www.opensesamegrill.com


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